Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Some More Words About Free Will

Matthew Bailey, A Portrait of Determinism

About a month ago I posted some silly questions about the idea of free will. I really meant to follow it up sooner, and it's not entirely for laziness that it's taken me this long to do so. We'll get to that in a second.

If you suspected a tone of an affectation in "Some Stupid Questions About Free Will," you were right. My mind is already made up about free will: it doesn't exist.

This isn't a popular position, and it's gotten me in more than a few heated arguments with friends. I've noticed two recurrences in these discussions: I can never seem to articulate my thoughts effectively, and I often get the impression that I and my friend are hotly disagreeing about a concept that means something totally different to each of us. I usually walk away regretting that I hadn't phrased something more clearly, or that we didn't forestall all further debate until we came to an agreement on what we talk about about when we talk about free will. Such was precisely the case when my friend Yen and I stayed up bickering until 2:00 AM one night in early June, bickering and talking over each other until we finally just agreed to walk away in a mutual huff. After that I decided it might be best to sit down and arrange my thoughts in writing so I'd be better prepared the next time somebody says "bullshit" the next time I express disbelief in free will.

Before we go any further, one cause for my delay in elaborating on the original post was that Jon B.'s comments took the wind right out of my sails. Reading them over, I was impressed (and a little envious) at how well he managed to extemporaneously sum up the ideas I've so often struggled to articulate myself:

Can I propose this? Instead of arguing definitions, let the usage of 'Free Will', 'Choice', 'Action', 'Think', and any of their synonyms be banned. This allows a more precise argument to be constructed. If reasoning doesn't work, it's flaws will be more apparent, since it can't hide behind vague wording, and if an argument does work it's more likely to be agreed upon.

Everything that is has come about by a previous thing. A thing doesn't become what it is by its own power, but by the power of whatever came before it. If you look at a mathematical function, the result is dependent upon whatever value is entered in the function as well as the rule of the function. The physical world is no different (for the most part). The laws of physics always work the same way, and (besides levels of uncertainty at a subatomic level,) there is no variation.

The human brain is just another physical object, and everything it does is dependent upon what has come before it. If put in the exact same situation with the exact same circumstances it will do the exact same thing. Though each person is developed differently because different actions are experienced by him or her, and therefore will act differently, the way one is shaped is completely out of one's control. The processes which shaped this person were out of the processes' control, and those processes had no control over how they were shaped, and so on all the way back to the beginning of time.

Now compare this with your concept of 'Free Will'. If they don't match up, and if this reasoning is valid, from a completely clinical and objective perspective, free will does not exist.

Now practically, this isn't the necessarily case. There are still 'decisions', points where there are multiple hypothetical outcomes, and when I 'choose', that is, make one of these outcomes reality, I actually am choosing. However, with the same starting condition the same outcome will always turn out.

Though this isn't immediately useful to everyday life, it is still important to realize all of this, since many of the principles described above apply to everyday life in a less exact form. People with similar upbringings will often act similar. People in the same situations will often do similar things. If they don't, it's usually because an outside force affected them, contaminating the experiment, so to speak.

(When I put it in such terms, I feel like this is really obvious. But this took me years to realize, and no one else has mentioned such things yet.)

. . . . . . .

The problem with discussing these sorts of things is that there are two realities that we must deal with. To provide an example, it's similar to using a computer. All a computer can do manipulate memory. Every program is a series of instructions (which are memory themselves) that when executed modify, move, and erase memory in a specific way. When you just look at the machine code every program seems to be very linear and it's difficult to see what all of these commands are doing.

On the other hand, look at any program you use on a regular basis. It does not appear to be a whole load of machine code. There is text, color, pictures, tool bars, etc. There might be a complex user interface with many different options, or you may be playing a game like Skyrim where you can do almost anything.

Now which interpretation is real? Which one is the correct view of a computer program? Both! There's nothing about the machine code that makes it less real than the program that is seen, and vice versa. In fact, for either to be, the other must exist.

The Universe is a collection of laws that affect various 'things'. The relationship between these laws and that which they affect is what ultimately gives us the reality that you and I interpret. The Standard Model of Physics, which doesn't seem to allow multiple diverging paths (unless you want to get into string theory and the multiverse, which is an idea still in its infancy, and it's hard to say whether or not it may be valid), is no less real than the reality you and I perceive, which does seem to allow different outcomes to arise depending which path an entity takes. In fact, they both are dependent upon the other.

So when there are multiple ways a situation may unfold, and the situation occurs a specific way as a result of my involvement in it, when from my perspective it could unfold a completely different way, there was a choice on my part. I had free will. However, when you look at the individual fermions and which compose me and everything else, there appears to be no choice at all.

A problem occurs when one takes these two realities in at the same time. Do they seem a bit contradictory? Don't worry, Quantum Mechanics and the Theory of Relativity don't work together either. They have specific domains which they apply to, but they shouldn't be used outside of that. This is the exact same situation. Knowing that the Universe is rather deterministic (Not really, since elementary particles are somewhat unpredictable, but that doesn't change the argument), changes nothing about how one should view life. However, it's still useful to understand this other reality (if it can be understood), since the reality we are most familiar with often takes a similar form. (Not always.)

(Note: I am no Physicist, nor a Philosopher. I do have quite a bit of experience with the whole being human thing, but who doesn't? There probably are some inaccuracies with what I said, feel free to correct me on any of that. I do believe that when you look at anything at as simple a level as possible, the truth (or something similar to it) will inevitably be found. Problems arise when one either can't reach the simplest level, or has broken things down to a simpler, but still complex level, then proceeds to label it as the simplest level. I don't believe what we know is the simplest level of things, but I do believe that it is simple enough that valid conclusions can be made. Correct me if I'm wrong.)

And there you have it!

Nevertheless, I'm still compelled to type up some of the various notes I'd jotted down in preparation for the intended follow-up post where I'd say everything that Jon ended up saying in the comments section. Looking at them now, the following spiel is much less succinct than John's and potentially a little muddle-headed in its reasoning and in need of refining, but it was still worth a shot (even if the ideas are hardly original).  Besides, THIS IS MY BLOG AND I GET TO HAVE THE LAST WORD. DAMMIT.

So: what do we mean when we talk about free will?

What I mean when I talk about "free will" is the idea that the individual human being operates, in some transcendent manner, as a totally independent and autonomous agent within the physical world. But this is opaque jargon.

Maybe a better way of putting it would be to call it the belief that some immaterial, intrinsic "essence," whether we call it the "mind," the "soul," the "spirit," or whatever else, is the original source of human behavior, acting as an ethereal "pilot" within the organic body. This controlling essence is not subject to the rigid physical laws of action/reaction and cause/effect that govern every other particle in the universe. (The very, very small things in the universe operate under stranger and more inscrutable rule set than these, but for the time being we will leave them alone.)

I don't accept this, and this is a decisive juncture in the the discussion. From here it can turn towards an unresolvable argument about the existence of the soul. We can only go forward if we agree that there is no supernatural, metaphysical basis for human behavior or experience. Otherwise we can only agree to disagree and are better off changing the subject.

Provided we agree on this point:

"Mind" is not a physical existence; it is a subjective experience that has a physiological basis. Biochemistry is only differentiated from inorganic chemistry in terms of its particular setting. All of the conductive bodily meat that makes us do things like "perceive" and "think" must function along the same lines the ordered (but not necessarily predictable or even observable) exchange of forces from which all physical phenomena effloresce.

But "mind" is a thing generally believed in and taken quite seriously. This might be important, inasmuch as most arguments about "free will" assume the primacy of "mind" in determining an individual's actions.

I am not saying that "thinking" is not real. Of course it is. Thinking is (covert) behavior; it is something we do, just like seeing or moving or breathing. There is something ineffable about it; but there is something ineffable in all subjective experience.

I am not prepared to argue about the physical provenance of the experience of "mind" or "consciousness," but I don't think it is necessary. It might suffice to say that the powers of the human brain speak for themselves: we are a species superlatively capable of acquiring new sorts of behavior, outstanding problem solvers, excellent at retaining information (a phrase B.F. Skinner would dislike, but I'm not enough a biologist or behaviorist to produce the appropriate jargon), and, perhaps above all, we are extremely perceptive. We talk about "sentience" as a kind of awareness, superior to that of any other organism with which we are familiar.

The line of reasoning might run like this:

I am an intelligent, sentient creature. What this means is that I am uniquely capable of a kind of acute self-observation. (Certainly most animals observe themselves. They'd have a hard time doing anything if the stimuli produced by their own bodies didn't factor into their behavior.) So: I perceive myself in perpetual action from one moment to the next; I have the faculties to observe and consider my actions at present, to speculate on the advantages and disadvantages of actions I may take in the future, and to also observe my own observations and considerations. I observe junctures at which exclusive choices of action must be selected; I am capable of considering these alternatives and judging which are best; I frequently observe a coincidence between my perceived preference and the action I observe myself proceeding to execute.

From this coincidence I might conclude that the source of my actions is the same faculty through which I observe my actions.

I hope it is not too much a leap of logic to claim that observation and conception are of the same provenance. The organ is the brain and nervous system; these days we usually use words like "mind," "psyche," or "consciousness" to describe the subjective experience. "I" (whatever "I" am) am ultimately in control over this thing or essence; or otherwise, this thing or essence is actually what "I" am.

I am also aware of a sense of "freedom." I recognize the future as uncertain and unformed, a space in which my actions have not yet occurred. Between the present instant and the future, it is unknown what action I might take; therefore my potential actions are conceivably illimitable. If they are conceivably illimitable, they must be illimitable. Anything I might conceivably do in any future moment is something I might actually do at some future moment. At every next instant (or any future moment or span in time) there is an illimitable number of things I conceive I might do, and so my faculty of conception has executive choice in what I choose to do, and my faculty of conception is either what "I" identify as, or something over which my core essence has control.

At a given moment, any given moment, I (whatever "I" am) the primum mobile of my own behavior. My actions are absolutely volitional; the only mitigating vectors can be the external physical circumstances of a given instant.

The first error, I think, is that in a given instant, the ineffable subjective experience called consciousness through which we experience reality bears no obvious markings of any occasion prior to the immediate present. Our perceptions are restricted to the present.

We are shaped by perpetual cascades of circumstance of which we can only recall infinitesimal fractions. Even at the moment of occurrence, we cannot consciously perceive the whole of it. The greater part of our lives escapes our notice. So to say we observe and can recall every muscle twitch, stray thought, quickening heartbeat, etc. is obviously false. We are incapable of accurately conceiving our personal continuity in its entirety.

There can be no "free will" if we are constrained by circumstances at every instant; circumstances that are the immediate consequence of an incomprehensibly abstruse chain of causality within an ordered (yet unfathomably complex) physical universe.

The person I am at any given moment exists in the latest instant of an unbroken continuity. "Mind" is a moot point as long as we agree that its existence and character are dependent on structures and processes within the body. (If it weren't, the pharmaceutical industry wouldn't have much of a selling point for their products, and narcotics would enjoy far less popularity.) There is not a single moment when the essential "I" (my core personal essence, my mind, my psyche, my soul) can put on the brakes and redirect my behavior in such a way that is no way the next logical step in the contiguous history of the organism that I am.

I can only do what I do. What I do during a given instant is the only thing I can do at that instant. Any appearance of spontaneity or randomness should be attributed to the limitations of our perception and understanding of human physiology.

The validity of the concept of "free will" (as we attempted to define it above) is inversely proportionate to the validity of physical determinism, and we have very good reason to believe that our world is for the very most part nonrandom -- that all (or extremely close to all) observable events logically proceed from prior events.

(Note: I don't think that determinism necessarily equates to predestination. The latter implies the existence of an original, intelligent (as can be understood anthropically) architect of each and every last smallest physical quantity's movement across and throughout a span of what we can effectively call Eternity; in other words, that a deliberate plan is being followed. The former does not.)

But yeah. There's that thing about quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle.

On the quantum scale (wherein the basic yardstick for physical dimensions is 1/1,000,000,000 of a meter) the particles of the flashes in our electric brains behave in ways that we cannot predict, and are evidently random. This apparent lapse in determinism is sometimes cited as grounds to affirm the truth of our experience of free will.


1.) If you don't have an advanced degree, you shouldn't make any statements about quantum physics or its implications because you do not know what you are talking about. I do not have an advanced degree. I really don't know what I am talking about and would appreciate any appropriate corrections where my thoughts might be mistaken (at least about physics, I mean).

2.) That said, I question the degree to which quantum events "scale" up to the world of our own experience. My understanding of it is more or less that the evident randomness of quantum-scale events very rarely have an appreciable effect in the realm of our experience. After all, if "macroscopic" events were subject to quantum indeterminacy at every turn, this whole argument would be moot. The physical world would be too inconsistent to allow for advanced organic life, let alone a human civilization with a sophisticated communications network. I wouldn't be typing this, you wouldn't be reading it.

3.) Say that quantum uncertainty does influence our behavior in a significant way (and who is to say it does not?): on what grounds can we claim that quantum events are caused by us (or our minds), and not the reverse? Saying that I (the essential "I") regulate the quantum activity within my body by a transcendent effort of will rather seems a case of confusing cause with effect.

It is more likely that "we" (all of the essential "I"s, our sentient cores) contribute to our own behavior largely as oberservers of ourselves; not movers.

This is not to say that perception has no bearing on behavior. Our perceptions are the pathways through which our environment asserts its control over us. We are constantly changed by our experiences. This is evident in what we observe in our thoughts and our beliefs.

I believe what I believe as the result of my environment. If I believed something different, I would behave much differently. (Or: if I behaved much differently, I would believe something different?) If we have two copies of the very same human being from the very exact same moment and time, identical except for a small difference in moods, the copies would not be identical. Their physiology is different -- very small and subtly different, but of enough behavioral significance to change the way they might respond to their environment at a given moment.

For instance: a person who believes that his choices are important and his actions do matter (but we never said they did not) might be more capable of effective behavior than a person whose shiftlessness is marked by an expressed belief that nothing he does makes a difference.

(Again: does the difference in attitude cause the subtle difference in physiology, or vice versa? This is not a question I can address.)

In this world, knowing what we do, and being what we are, it might be useful to overlook the paradox and simultaneously believe both "I am free to act in the world and responsible for my actions" and "I am purely a haphazard product of my genes and environment."

We cannot currently afford to accept only one at the expense of the other.

NEXT:  Implications.*

(Whenever I perform these exercises in amateur sophistry, comments and criticisms are duly appreciated. I'd rather be corrected than mistaken.)

* read: "next or soon or later."


  1. Wow, thanks Patrick! I feel quite special now.

    A few months ago my brother showed me a movie called The Waking Life. There was a pretty cool segment where they discussed this topic. I don't fully agree with how they interpreted it, but the way they phrase the question is worth checking out.

    (Is it possible to put actual links in these comments? Regardless, here's a clip of it.)

    1. Waking Life. Funny. One of my roommates wants me to watch it. Is it worth my time to check out?

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Whoa! I had read this before and was planning to reply to it. Guess I shouldn't have waited.

    2. I ended up feeling like I had misrepresented arguments that I don't understand very well. Here's a temporary pastebin if you found anything worth replying to: http://pastebin.com/bSSG0S6e